[Note: I was honored to be invited to the Indies Introduce Children’s panel last summer. A group of ten booksellers from all over the country read through middle grade and young adult novels by first-time novelists. We had regular conference calls discussing each book and eventually selected what we considered to be the ten best books by debut authors. Those books are now (woot!) being published and I’m excited to introduce them to the Eight Cousins community. Over the next few days, I’ll discuss each of the books. ]
Today’s featured Indies Introduce titles are Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton and Salvage by Alexandra Duncan.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender sparked a tremendous amount of discussion among our panel about book categories and readers’ ages. Some argued that this particular book was *not* YA (young adult), thus raising questions about what exactly YA is. In Ava Lavender, the main character is a teenager, but she doesn’t appear in the story until about 75 pages in. Ava does narrate the story of her youth, but is in her late 70s when she tells the story. The book, therefore, challenges the assumption that YA books are about teens. As far as content goes, there are frank references to sex — it is a story about three generations of a family after all. Finally, who are the intended readers. Ava Lavender, since it deals occasionally with middle age, married life, and parenting teens? It is a cross-over book to be sure, but the more I heard people arguing that this particular book was *not* YA, the more convinced I became that it *was* YA. While I’m still struggling a bit to precisely explain why (one of the things I love about books is that they are elusive and defy easy summaries), I would argue that it has to do with the book’s tone. Ava, although a much older narrator, tells the story of her family and her youth in a very youthful way. And by youthful I mean that she doesn’t always get bogged down by the details. She doesn’t explain everything — often letting the reader fill in the gaps — and she doesn’t let emotions become overly burdensome. The story, as the title suggests, contains sorrows, but it is very light and free. Readers will walk away from this book feeling uplifted. The Stories of Ava Lavender is magical realism in the spirit of Isabel Allende (one of my favorite writers when I was a teen). The writing and characters are fantastically unusual. But it’s refusal to be pinned down in one particular category is precisely what makes this book worth reading.
Salvage also defies easy categorization. The story takes place in the future. Earth still exists, but communities have moved to vessels and therefore sometimes becoming insulated and completely separated from the outside world. Ava’s community is — well we would describe it as backward. The disparity between the sexes is firmly implemented in her society’s structure. Women are caregivers, food providers, and mostly silent and submissive. Ava’s mathematical and technical knowledge must be carefully guarded, but she firmly subscribes to her inferior role. Her innocence and naiveté lead her to make a social blunder of such magnitude that she is sentenced to death by the the women of her society. Her escape to earth — near-future Mumbai — becomes a catalyst for self-discovery. Along the way she also learns more about her own family and how her ancestors’ decisions influenced her own experiences. Salvage isn’t for anyone who wants a quick book. It requires commitment; Ava’s journey isn’t always straight-forward. Nevertheless, the satisfaction of recognizing how much Ava has grown in the course of this novel is well worth the time.